The Media Damage to the Fire Service
Take a moment to look back at the shows that were about firefighters and EMTs, such as Emergency, 3rd Watch, Rescue Me, and now Chicago Fire. All of these shows were centered on the world of the fire service and, with that being said, have done great damage to the service over the years. Emergency, arguably the least detrimental, has trained the public that when we are not on calls, firefighters are often just clowning around the firehouse. Third Watch and Rescue Me perpetuated the idea that all firefighters are alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, and sex starved men with very troubled personal lives. These heroic characters will take on two months worth of exciting emergencies and pack them into a single hour. Chicago Fire is yet another continuation of the same premise. The first season opened with the main character (firefighter) addicted to drugs. He talks a paramedic into stealing drugs off the ambulance to give him his fix. Backdraft has a firefighter starting fires to discourage the closing of firehouses. Drama Drama Drama!
It all seems so Hollywood far-fetched, yet the problem is that the public has a long memory for the negative. They are never exposed to the real life world of fire, which is far less glamorous. Hollywood decides to run with highly unbelievable drama, and their perception becomes a reality for the general public. This would be less concerning, if not for the fact that these stereotypes are fouls and actually lead to cities and towns making bad decisions. A perfect example of this is in an article I recently read in the Washington Post. It discussed how fire incidents are down across the country and how firefighters don’t have much to do anymore. We sit around and take naps, maybe watch TV, and wait for the next fire. To professional firefighters, the mere thought of this is laughable. Fire based EMS has exploded in call volume and has taken a solid hold across the nation. There seems to be a disconnect between the general public realizing that the ambulance they see rolling down the road is actually the fire departments’ as well. The media likes fires because they are more exciting. Yes, helping Grandma when she’s having severe abdominal pain is not as shiny as a 5-alarm building fire, but it’s our job, and we do it very well. We can bring the emergency room to you, and the amount of people saved by this service is exponentially higher than a rescue from a burning building. The media doesn’t find a heart attack or stroke to be a rating catcher unless we do it in a hospital setting with a Dr. McDreamy and some sex-starved nurses. Sadly, it’s not only the fire service that’s being misrepresented here.
Long ago, most fire departments cross-trained their firefighters also to handle EMS emergencies. Two for the price of one! When these TV shows do bother to include EMS, it’s in the form of a grizzly car wreck, rescuing children from twisted, burning cars. Rescue is a part of our job, technical rescues like vehicle extrication, water, ice, high angle, and confined space are all part of the rescue phase. Firefighter, EMT, and Rescue Technician! Now we have 3 jobs for the price of one! All of these disciplines require recertification and constant training. Often, these disciplines will change, and newer tactics or equipment will be entered into the equation, which also requires new training. Nevermind the equipment checks, vehicle maintenance, and even housework that must be completed daily. Yes, firemen scrub toilets! Not very TV friendly, but its reality.
Firefighters are often portrayed as cavalier lovers that have badge bunnies chasing us around and dying to sleep with us. Hot, stoic men, unshaven and burly, waiting to save the day. The fact is, that too is Hollywood silliness. We are just people. We want to have families and go to our kid’s soccer games just like you. Sadly, the fire service has one of the highest divorce rates of any profession. Crazy hours and loss of family time doesn’t make for marital bliss. The fire service is a calling, not a choice. It grinds people and relationships up, and only the strongest survive. It takes a very special person to be married to someone in the fire service and not enough is ever said about these partners. The media pays very little attention to these fantastic pillars of home strength because it’s not scandalous.
Television wouldn’t want to show us doing our day to day work because it’s just work. Helping people is our job, but it’s not always exciting. None of the shows talks about the fact that a professional firefighter has a 50% higher rate of cancer than the general public.
How’s that for drama! Flip a coin and if it’s heads, you have cancer. Are you now dying to sign up for that job? A job that gives you a much higher chance of stroke or heart attack. A job where there is a good chance your marriage will fail and that your kids won’t get the attention they often need. No, the realities of the fire service are not nearly as fun as the Hollywood portrayals.
Media also never differentiates between volunteer firefighters and professionals. Volunteerism has its’ benefits in small towns with low call volume. I’m not saying that volunteers do not do a good job or that they are bad in some way, however, it’s difficult not to see the differences. The amount of training a professional must accomplish just to stay current is staggering. Media outlets do not do a good job of delineating between a paid and volunteer firefighter when they run news stories. John Doe was caught stealing drugs out of the back of the ambulance, and the headline read that he was a firefighter. In reality, John Doe was a full-time employee for the factory down the street and he occasionally volunteered for his hometown. Now, the general public has an immediate distaste with this poor portrayal of the truth. John Doe disgraced the fire service. Now take Jane Doe, who has an affinity for starting fires that allow her to go on fire calls. The news headline reads “Firefighter starts Fires.” The reality, Jane works at the mobile station full-time and volunteers for her local fire department. Perhaps she felt it was not busy enough, and she wanted to make it more exciting. Public perception sticks with the myth that firefighters start fires. That is a sad perception that is still around today. When did your extracurricular activities become your identity? Headline “Gymnast steals Candy Bar”, “Harley Enthusiast has a drug issue”, “Local Birdwatcher embezzles money!” These are perfect examples of how the media takes a hobby and makes them your identity.
Overall, the fire service and the media need to work better at perpetuating the truth instead of fueling the myths. Every profession has a rare example of a bad egg, but this should not tarnish such a valuable and honorable profession. Let’s all start to do our part with educating the public on these differences. We need to learn to be our biggest advocates because the media is not necessarily our friends.
President – Local 1045
Professional Firefighters of Concord, NH
Thanks for the article and thoughts. A couple of thoughts that I had while I read it:
Yes, the media provides a slanted to view of the fire service, just as do they with police work, EMS, and ER visits. I’d argue that a majority of the public realizes that it’s just that – entertainment. There have been few shows portraying our jobs and our lives realistically. Why? Our jobs, while important, are relatively boring. I’m not sure who wants to tune in to watch hazmat refresher courses, workout routines, or business inspection. Although we do a lot of EMS runs and go to some fires and motor vehicle accidents, we must admit that this the minority of what we do. Hollywood is about money, and sex and drama sell. What better place to insert those two things but the backdrop of a big-city firehouse?
As for reporting the difference between career and volunteer firefighters, it’s important to remember that the public, we are simply “firefighters.” They trust the local VFD to vet their prospective members and provide them the training they need to accurately respond to the emergencies that might be unique to their community. While the volunteer’s paycheck may come from a vocation aside from the fire service, it doesn’t change the fact that when the don the uniform or turnout gear, they’re held to a higher standard, just as those members who are on the job are. The culture and expectations of volunteer fire departments can vary drastically in different regions of the US, so painting all of them with a common brush isn’t any more fair than assuming that all career firefighters are boozing womanizers.
Let’s all do our part to ensure that our brothers and sisters hold themselves to the same high standards that we hold ourselves to.
Its to bad that this article had to take a turn down the “volunteers aren’t professional road”. The beginning of the article made some good points but the inevitable degrading of the volunteers reared its ugly head. Indeed there are people that volunteer “occasionally” at their volunteer departments, there are also volunteers who put in a large amount of their personal time as well.
It seems like the author shares an uninformed view of much of the volunteer service like the media does of the paid service. The town that I live in averages about 10,000 EMS and fire calls per year, all handled by volunteers. Many of the departments in our town have firefighters that are EMT’s or higher and many other certifications and training.
Most news stories do say that the person belonged to the XXXXXX fire department which anyone with half a brain can figure out if its volunteer or paid based on many factors, one of which is when they usually say the word “volunteer” in the departments name.
It is true that the volunteer service doesn’t always get the “elite” personnel of the paid service, but many of the authors comments are as damaging to the volunteer service as the complaints he has of the medias portrayal of the paid service are.
I cant appreciate the fact that only paid firefighters can be professional. After reading this article a couple times it is abundantly clear that the arrogance of this author is as damaging to the fire service as any of the examples he gave.
“Jane works at the Mobil station”.
We’ll chosen words for one trying to dis volunteers. I was a volunteer in a large suburban jurisdiction for over 25 years. We have the same training requirements as our career partners do. Im a certified fire officer IV. In addition I have an MS in fire protection engineering and work with many other departments and allied fields. I would have loved to have been a career firefighter, but the salary would barely pay my taxes.
Typical IAFF hack. As a volunteer firefighter for over 25 years and a career firefighter for the past 5, I can tell you that many of the volunteer firefighters I have come across in my career are better trained and more highly certified than their paid counterparts. Some paid firefighters don’t train or achieve higher levels of education or do anything proactive, unless they are being paid to do so. Now that’s not all paid firefighters, just some. Just like with volunteers some of which are well trained and seek higher levels of education, and some of which do just enough to keep the t-shirt.
I know the union dislikes the fact that volunteers even exist. Volunteers take away paying jobs from union brothers, is the typical montra. This belief just shows that the union of “professional” firefighters are out of touch. Many communities protected by volunteers would never have a paid fire department, let alone a unionized one.
As for the media’s reporting on questionable behavior, I think the fire service’s focus should be on the fact that they are identifying people by profession, which they do for all, but I guess I never realized that only volunteers committed crimes or did damaging things. I believe the last article I read about fire service based arson involved a paid guy…
I wish you would stick with your original premise and not attached volunteers. It’s a shame that someone with such limited vision and obvious vitriol is a leader in the New Hampshire for service and the fire service in general.
Michael D. Mulligan
Chief of Department
Harris County ESD #46/Atascocita VFD
Fire doesn’t care if you are volunteer or career. It will kill you just as fast.
Iowa Administrative Code (Section 661, Chapter 251) also doesn’t care whether you fight one fire per year or one fire per day. All firefighters, regardless of volunteer or career, must meet the Minimum Training Standard as outlined in the above law.
Notice I call the full-time firefighters “career” and not professional. Volunteer firefighters sometimes have to be more professional. When we respond from our homes regardless of whether we were at our children’s birthday parties or left in the middle of Christmas dinner, or spent the day at fire on our 25th Wedding Anniversary, we never know if we will be the engineer, the nozzle, the irons, or be the senior guy sitting in the right front seat making the life or death decisions that could change a firefighter’s life. We do it all. Not just riding backwards every 3rd day but sometimes weeks of jumping seat to seat before getting a day away from the station. Tell me why that isn’t professional. The people we show up to help expect the same treatment that your customers expect.
Granted there are some bad eggs out there but when there are more volunteer firefighters in the country than there are career, obviously you’ll hear more bad stories about the volunteers than you will about the guy that does it as a job.
Tell my wife, kids and grandkids that it’s just my hobby. I’m sure they’ll give you an earful of what it takes to be a volunteer firefighter’s family.
Delaware Township Fire Department
Des Moines, IA
The movie ladder 49 ( about 12 years old) is close as you can get depicting real life fire service. People who enter into the fire service soon realize that being a firefighter is more than what is shown on a movie screen,
Mr. Duckworth needs to wake up, re the volunteer/professional issue. I currently work for one of the first locals drawn out of the hat. The only training we do is the training that we decide to do on our own, by ourselves. I have yet to see more training or passion than in the volunteer department I was with before joining the local. I do realize there are always exceptions but let’s be real with ourselves.
Disagree with the article. I think ladder 49, Backdraft, and Rescue Me were a pretty accurate assessment of the fire service In the US. All these things I witnessed at some station or different dept. in my career with a 100 plus station paid dept. Some depts. are all about public relations, and while all these things happen at some extent in fire service, Paid/Volley, we did a good job of being seen as the good guys. Sure its changed somewhat. But its still full of ptsd that needs to be a huge priority, Alcohol and Drug abuse, Divorce, the list goes on. I can not recommend it as a good bet for a career anymore, based on what I learned and saw around me, Heart/Cancer. Also, emergency did a great service for paramedics and the LACOFD, again. They were in a new program, and thousands of fireman/Medics choose this career based on that show.
I was agreeing with most of this article until I got to the “professional” vs volunteer comments. Then I knew what I would find at the end of the article. What he meant was union vs volunteer. I am amazed how some firefighters think being in a union magically makes them “professional” firefighters. Unions would not even need to exist if we trusted the city, country, fire district or whoever you work for to treat all employees fairly. But we know that is not going to happen so firefighters need the collective bargaining power of the union. But having a union does not automatically make you a more professional firefighter. Some unions have actually fought against more training and physical fitness requirements for their departments. I am a volunteer with as many hours of classroom training and certifications as most paid firefighters I know. But unlike them, who make only the fires that happen on their shift, I try to make every fire I can with our department.
The other thing that really concerns me is the constant barrage of articles I see posted on the internet by firefighters criticizing others in the fire service. Maybe where this author works they are surrounded by poorly trained volunteer departments (I doubt it). But does that make it true for the whole fire service across the country? I’ve seen so many articles lately about firefighters from one part of the country or one type of department criticizing things other departments do. Unless you have spend some time in big city paid departments and very rural understaffed and poorly financed rural departments, and everything in between, and have done that in several different states, you are not really qualified to tell other departments what to do, just because a particular practice happens to work for your department. I have been on four volunteer departments in 3 Midwestern states over the last 40 years and all were very different in how they operated. I’ve also been to departments on the east coast which were nothing like the departments I have been on. In the fire service we must continually strive to be as educated and well trained as possible. And we must show compassion for the people we serve and especially others in the fire service. Writing negative articles about the fire service does not do this. The ironic thing is that his comments on paid vs volunteer are just as damaging to the fire service as the negative Hollywood stereotypes he wrote the article about.
your article is right on the money, especially the fact that the media identifies volleys as firefighters no different from career firefighters.
The writer is gravely mistaken about volunteer fire and ems personnel. More than 3/4 of fire fighters in the us are volunteers. We are better trained up front and have better continuing education than the majority of “paid”. The media has no business staying wether a fire fighter is paid or volunteer. Hers a news flash for you,. Fire doesn’t care. Grandma in cardiac arrest doesn’t care. LODDs do not care. So perhaps before you write another article and trash volunteers as fire starters and drug addicts, get some facts to use
How are the training requirements any different for a firefighter who is paid to be one or a volunteer?
Thank you for attempting to set the record straight. I am a retired Firefighter with 32 years of service. I cringe when I see how Holywood has been portraying Professional Firefighters and law enforcement officers.